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A Michigan Employer Avoids Sexual Harassment Liability Through Proper Investigation and Employee Discipline

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A Michigan Employer Avoids Sexual Harassment Liability Through Proper Investigation and Employee Discipline

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits sexual harassment as a form of discrimination based on sex. A recent spate of high-profile sexual harassment claims has brought increased public awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace. As a result, many have predicted a sharp increase in sexual harassment claims in the near future. Whether or not this prediction comes to fruition, employers must have policies and measures in place which address complaints of sexual harassment and prevent further harassing behavior. Appropriate responses to sexual harassment claims serve to protect employees and help to defeat hostile work environment claims, as illustrated in Beauvais v. City of Inkster, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 185577 (E.D. Mich. Nov. 9, 2017).

In Beauvais, Plaintiff was formerly employed as a police officer with the city of Inkster for nearly a decade. Plaintiff alleged that her co-worker, a male police officer and co-defendant in this case, sexually harassed her on multiple occasions. On one occasion, Defendant officer purportedly whispered in Plaintiff’s ear “you’re feeling frisky aren’t you?” Four days later, Defendant took pictures of Plaintiff’s chest on his cell phone, and asked her to pose. On another occasion, Defendant suggested that Plaintiff engage in sexual acts with himself and his girlfriend.

Plaintiff complained to her supervisors shortly after thereafter. The City responded by putting the parties on separate shifts, with Plaintiff and Defendant working the same shift only once after the complaint was filed. The City also held an internal disciplinary hearing regarding the complaints. Defendant was found to have violated the City’s sexual harassment policies, and was given a three-day suspension.

In addition to conducting the internal hearing, the City hired an independent law firm to investigate Plaintiff’s allegations and to determine whether its Police Department had gender discrimination or sexual harassment issues. The law firm concluded that Defendant’s comments were inappropriate and warranted disciplinary action. The City then ordered sexual harassment training for the Police Department, and other city departments, citing its lack of recent training and complaints of sexual harassment within the department.

Plaintiff filed a lawsuit in federal court against her co-worker and the City. She alleged various violations of state and federal laws, including a Title VII hostile work environment claim based on sexual harassment. The City filed a motion for summary judgment on the sexual harassment claim, asserting that it should not be liable for the alleged hostile work environment.

Plaintiff argued that the City was liable, as evidenced by its inappropriate remedial actions in response to her complaint of sexual harassment. She asserted that Defendant officer’s disciplinary hearing was farcical and his punishment was not enough. Additionally, she had to work on the same shift with Defendant the day after filing her complaint. Finally, the sexual harassment training given to various City agencies was ineffective and was not done in response to her complaint, but instead was carried out because no sexual harassment training had been administered in some time.

In awarding summary judgment to the City on the sexual harassment claim, the Court rejected Plaintiff’s argument that the City failed to take appropriate remedial action. The court said the City was not liable as its “response did not manifest indifference or unreasonableness as a matter of law.” The court cited the City’s various actions evidencing appropriate remedial measures including hiring a law firm to investigate Plaintiff’s sexual harassment complaints and sexual harassment issues within the Police Department; ensuring that the Plaintiff and alleged harasser did not share the same shift two days after the complaint was filed; and conducting sexual harassment training, which was partially motivated by Plaintiff’s allegations. Additionally, these actions were not negligent as there were no previous allegations of sexual harassment or gender discrimination lodged against Defendant officer.

Although courts do not provide checklists detailing which proper remedial measures to take under each circumstance, they do provide general guidelines which require companies to take steps to prevent and end sexual harassment. The court cited Sixth Circuit precedent which instructs that an employer is more likely to have been found to have properly responded to a complaint where it takes “affirmative steps reasonably calculated to prevent and put an end to a pattern of harassment.” Examples of such affirmative steps include “personally counselling harassers, sending them letters emphasizing the company’s policies and the seriousness of the allegations against them, and threatening harassers with serious discipline if future allegations are substantiated.”

The Court’s ruling provides several important reminders for employers responding to sexual harassment complaints. First, investigations should be conducted promptly and thoroughly. Immediate action, such as separating the parties, may be necessary. In some cases, sexual harassment investigations should be conducted by external entities. Upon confirmation that sexual harassment has taken place, it is important to take steps reasonably calculated to end the harassment and prevent it from occurring in the future. These measures should take into account the nature of the harasser’s conduct and whether there have been previous violations or allegations. Sexual harassment complaints also serve as a reminder for employers to review their harassment and discrimination policies periodically. Where issues are found, employers should address them promptly and re-train employees accordingly. Even where issues do not exist, periodic training reduces the risk of legal exposure and emphasizes the employer’s commitment to its written policies.